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Employee telecommuting: Time for a fresh look?

May 15, 2013

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner AdvanceHR

A rising number of companies — large and small — are permitting employees to telecommute, full or part-time. Recently the practice came under fire when Yahoo’s CEO said the opportunity to work from home was about to vanish. Some argue that working from home increases productivity and job satisfaction, while others believe it undermines team camaraderie. Here’s a look at some of the issues surrounding telecommuting.

The firestorm ignited by Yahoo’s decision to pull the plug on employee telecommuting earlier this year is causing some employers to review their policies — whether they permit the practice or not. It isn’t merely an issue for large companies like Yahoo. When it comes to flexibility, the Families and Work Institute says small employers are often leading the way.

A study published last year by the Institute “found no significant difference in the percentage of small versus very large employers allowing some level of flexibility” in work arrangements, according to Kenneth Matos, the organization’s senior director of employment research and an author of the study. About 10 percent of surveyed small employers allow employees to work from home, at least occasionally, according to the study.

Why should they bother? Not simply to fulfill a vague goal to be seen as a friendly place to work. Productivity gains are possible with the right systems, jobs and people in place. For Bob Conlon, a consultant on workplace effectiveness with Sibson Consulting, an important benefit is to provide access to a “broader slice of the labor pool,” including people whose obligations at home do not accommodate a standard workday. “Notwithstanding recent employment reports, we do believe the labor market will tighten up over time,” he adds.

A Losing Strategy?

If allowing employees to telecommute is viewed merely as an element of compensation, “you may see employers let it go during periods of high unemployment,” says Matos. He sees telecommuting as part of a broader human capital strategy. Dropping telecommuting (for those that already offer it) “is a losing strategy over time. People who want work flexibility will just leave when they have a chance.” A recent Harris Poll of 2,219 working adults, one-third of whom work from home at least some time, found that 61 percent report their ability to telecommute has or would have an impact on their decision to take or stay at a job.

The Families and Work Institute’s “Essential Guide to Effective and Flexible Workplaces” offers a more comprehensive treatment of the broader topic of job flexibility.

Whatever the economic environment, for smaller employers the key is having jobs that can be performed in isolation of co-workers and the physical facilities of the business. Smaller employers may lack the technology infrastructure to bring telecommuters together electronically to reduce the impediment of distance.

Conlon encourages employers not to think of telecommuting as an all-or-nothing proposition. It may serve as a temporary solution to an employee’s immediate need, which, if not accommodated, would result in losing that employee, he says.

Legitimate Concerns

The issues cited by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer about telecommuting, including productivity concerns, reduced camaraderie and less impromptu creative problem-solving sessions among co-workers, must be addressed. Indeed, some employees share those same worries. The Harris poll found that while 64 percent of workers surveyed believe working from home is a productivity-booster, 84 percent see a potential down-side in a reduction of team camaraderie.

The impact of any loss of camaraderie may be hard to measure. But performance standards must be made clear at the outset. While some goals can be very concrete (“write 5,000 lines of code this week”), progress on other kinds of jobs may require detailed reporting to supervisors. “It’s important to have a communication strategy,” Matos says, to ensure that supervisors have a handle on the work that’s getting done, so that they can nip any problems in the bud.

Employment Law Implications

Employment law considerations must also be taken into account. Fisher & Phillips attorney Eric Uhl made the following points when advising clients on the subject of telecommuting:

  • Allowing employees to telecommunicate does not change your obligation to comply with federal and state wage-hour laws. To avoid possibly being required to pay overtime pay to at-home employees, be sure to “have a procedure in place for recording the time worked by telecommuters,” and a policy “clearly delineating what work is permissible and when,” Uhl advises.
  • The employers’ obligation under OSHA to provide a safe workplace to employees applies to telecommuting sites. Solution: “You can require telecommuters to have a designated workspace that has been inspected and approved by the company,” as well as informing telecommuters their workplaces may be subject to random safety inspections, according to Uhl.
  • Protecting employees from discrimination requires that “any telecommunicating policy must be implemented in a nondiscriminatory fashion,” Uhl warns. Also, allowing an employee to work from home might be deemed a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition, security of proprietary company information used by telecommuters must be safeguarded. “Require telecommuting employees to follow adequate security procedures, including the use of passwords and protected networks,” Uhl stresses.

Every company is different. Flexible work arrangements fit better into some organizational structures than others. In many cases, allowing employees to telecommute is a great way to stretch scarce resources like desk and office space. Just make sure you have the necessary mechanisms in place to ensure high standards of communication, time-tracking, and security.

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